MAGADHA: THE RISE OF AN EMPIRE
In 323 BC standing at the western bank or river Beas (Hyphasis in Greek) the soldiers of Alexander the great refused to cross the river. They were tired, wounded, homesick and above all well aware of the force that was awaiting them on the other side of the river. The Nanda Empire with its capital located in Patliputra, modern day Patna, in Bihar state of India could have been the most brutal force Alexander might have ever encountered.
Alexander, after his conquest of Persia, turned his gaze to India. He defeated number of small kingdoms before facing Porus who ruled in Punjab between Hydaspes (Jhelum) and Acesines (Chenab). Though emerged victorious Alexander and his army faced the wrath of war elephants and a determined force to repulse his attack. This battle was prelude to Alexander’s retreat from India. The following account sums up his retreat.
“As for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India. For having had all they could do to repulse an enemy who mustered only twenty thousand infantry and two thousand horse, they violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also, the width of which, as they learned, was thirty-two furlongs, its depth a hundred fathoms, while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at-arms and horsemen and elephants. For they were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants. “
The power of Nanda was the power of Magadha. Since it was one of many dynasties that came out from the womb of this place. To further understand the rise of Magadha and ultimately reaching its climax under the Mauryans who succeeded Nanda’s, it is important to look back at its rise.
Sixth century BCE, was a century of political upheaval. In Rome the monarchy was over thrown and replaced with republic, Greece had already seen the rise of city states, in about 550 BCE Cyrus founded Achaemenid Empire. India was not free of significant political development either. Based on agricultural surplus and use of iron a number of big territories had risen. Buddhist and jaina literature refers to them as Mahajanapadas. They were total sixteen in number. This is a story of Magadha, one of these Mahajanapadas, whose rise would eventually lead to the first political unification of the south Asian subcontinent.
In 543 BCE Bimbisara a young man of 15 years, became the king of Magadha. From the very outset he displayed his ambitious zeal. He launched a campaign against Anga Mahajanapada located to its east and annexed it. But he was well aware of the political calculations of his time. He knew military might alone wouldn’t suffice and so he made three marriage alliances. His marriage with princesses of vaisali and kosala mahajanapada was most significant. To his marriage with Vaishali Princess Chelna that Ajatshatru was born as per Jaina literature. The meaning of name Ajatshatru was ‘ One whose enemy hasn’t been born. He forcefully regained the throne from his father and put him in jail, as per some tradition he even executed him.
Ajatshatru now turned his attention to kosala mahanapada located to the west of Magadha, defeated it and annexed it. Emboldened by this victory he now harboured ambitions for the conquest of Vajji Confederacy. It was a confederacy of number of ruling families. His mother chelna was the princess of one of these families. The Vajjis were too powerful. It took Ajatshatru 16 years to subjugate them. He did it by sending Vassakara, his minister disguised who sowed conflict among vajjis and when they were at their weakest Ajatshatru attacked. However despite being an ambitious and powerful ruler he could not over run Avanti Mahajanapada. The war against Avanti was going on from his father‘s reign. But like his father he too failed to subjugate them. One thing must be emphasised here that despite being warrior rulers both Bimisara and Ajatshatru were disciples of Gautama Buddha. Ajatshatru’s son Udayin shifted the capital to Pataliputra from Rajgir that was capital since the time of Bimbisara. Udayin too made an attempt to subjugate Avanti but he is supposed to have died in a battle with them.
Tha Haryankas were followed by Shishunaga dynasty. Its most prominent ruler subjugated the most dangerous rival Avanti. However, it was Mahapdma Nanda, the founder of Nanda dynasty who transformed Magadha kingdom to an empire by extending it to Punjab. It was this Nanda Empire that Alexander the great, found across river Beas. The first part ends here but from here lies the real story of Magadha might, its politics, religion and most importantly the unique history of Ashoka The Great.